Defining What Was Heroic In Stalinist Russia

The Winter's Hero

By Vassily Aksyonov, Translated by John Glad

Random House

428 pp., $27.50

'The Winter's Hero," by Russian emigre writer Vassily Aksyonov, is set in the waning years of Stalin's rule. Individual fear of random, state-sponsored terror and the sometimes torturous mental confusion of those times are brilliantly, if at times horrifyingly, recreated.

The author successfully combines metaphysical and surreal elements of the novel with good, straightforward storytelling. This is a story that seems to have its roots in 19th-century Russian literature where sin, guilt, and repentance play prominent roles. Its worldview is a Russia caught in the grip of a long winter of totalitarianism, and this is where the heroism of its characters must be found.

The story starts, appropriately, in a frozen gulag. Kirill Gradov, a minor hero in the novel, has just been released from a hard labor camp in the Russian Far East. After his prison camp conversion to Christianity, he finds himself struggling to regain "everything that had survived the journey through three decades of godless living and atheistic delirium."

But in postwar Moscow, where most of the story takes place, times are good. Stalin himself, "a personality of exceptional parameters," is running the country. Boris Gradov, grandson of the famous physician of the same name, has returned home from the war with a Zuntag motorcycle and Horch automobile. He is young and dashing - a member of a family prominent in the Moscow intelligentsia. Boris's self-absorption seems a typical trait of the Gradov clan.

The patriarch of the family, Boris Gradov III, occupies the moral center of the novel. He is an aging physician who is haunted by his complicity in the medical murder of a Soviet civil war hero in the 1920s. He finds his peace after making a conscious decision to stop fearing Stalin, and becomes an unbending teller of hard truths in a society built entirely on lies.

In one of the novel's most penetrating episodes, the elder Gradov is called to the Kremlin to give Stalin a physical examination. Stalin, who sees Gradov as a personal savior, hopes that the physician will give him a clean bill of health. But Gradov infuriates the dictator by treating him with a clinical coolness and precision.

"Stalin had a clear case of iatrophobia," Gradov says silently, as if examining some unusual biological specimen. "He hated doctors because they destroyed his myth of greatness."

Gradov gives Stalin a frank diagnosis and is promptly arrested and just as quickly released. But the noose tightens around the Gradov family. His granddaughter Yolka becomes the random victim of secret police chief Lavrenty Beria, who regularly cruises the streets of Moscow in his armored Packard looking for young women to rape. The Gradovs struggle to pull Yolka from Beria's grasp. This prompts arrests and intimidation from the secret police.

As a result, an awakening of sorts takes place within the Gradov family. "What rubbish I've filled my life with: silly little poems, lovers, 'Clouds in Blue,' " exclaims Yolka's mother, sitting in her prison cell. "After all, how can anybody live in a gigantic concentration camp ... where everyone is doomed to see his own features warped and deformed?"

The Gradovs' resistance to injustice ultimately clears the way for personal redemption.

For all its near prophetic insight on the sins of the not-too-distant Soviet past, and the present day legacy, "The Winter's Hero" remains an easy read.

Aksyonov has a dark sense of humor and irony reminiscent of Gogol that he uses to good effect when writing about some of the darker aspects of human existence.

He has also tapped the deeply embedded strains of Russian religious thought and written a novel that not only laments the Soviet version of the past but offers hope for the Russian present.

*Brian Humphreys is a freelance writer living in southern California.

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